A long time ago, early in my days as a teacher, my friend and mentor told me something that has stuck with me through the years. She said:
“Parents just want to know their child is loved.”
I believe she was helping me prepare for my very first round of parent-teacher conferences, and calming my nerves with this pearl of wisdom. I didn’t have children of my own at the time, so even though her thought made sense to me on an intellectual level, it didn’t carry the same meaning that it carries now. Over the years I have reflected on her words, and they have since resonated so deeply in my experiences as a mother and teacher. Her simple yet profound statement has, in part, informed my practices in relationship building with families, and put an unconditionally loving filter on my view of all the children I’ve cared for in my many years of teaching…especially the challenging ones. And, of course, I have found these words to be true as a mother, as I want for my own children to be seen, respected and yes, loved by the other people who care for them.
I am constantly in a state of challenging, and thinking about my identity as a teacher and mother (sometimes too much, or too critically) and I’ve gone in and out of what I call grooves of “getting it.” I’ll have weeks where my connections feel strong and deep, things kind of roll, and click. I’ll feel confident and can handle curve-balls being thrown my way. Those are the weeks where all the tools I’ve learned how to utilize seem to be easily accessed, I can call up the right language and attitudes in the face of struggles. Then I’ll experience other times where I feel a tangible distance from others, or a general lack of patience and ease (all of which I can usually attribute to tiredness, anxiety or hunger), and the path of “loving well” becomes much more elusive and slippery. But this pattern of highs and lows that has emerged continues to teach me how vital forgiveness (of self and others) is, and also how critical it is to develop and hone the art of repairing and hitting the reset button after I’ve made mistakes. It takes a conscious effort to step back onto the path.
I was recently inspired by watching an interview with author and educator, Ann Pelo, whose work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning and the art of mentoring. She describes, with such eloquence, embracing a curious mindset about children. She breaks down and re-frames the notion of a teacher as an instructor who aims to deliver a measured amount of content knowledge, but rather a careful thinker who deeply considers the child, and instead offers responses to their play and interests. She speaks to the expectations of teachers, and how overly invested they can become with offering “things” to children, all in the name of supporting their learning. She suggests that we clear space for learning rather than try to fill it, which points to an authentic trust in young children as self-motivated learners. I loved her trademark, poetic phrasing when she said these offerings to children should have the “lightest touch” and teachers should have the “least attachment” to preconceived outcomes. She goes on to talk about what she calls “lively” learning, and that the emergence of new ideas and thinking comes from wrestling with conflicting ideas…that learning should be fluid, reciprocal and engaging. For a link to the video of her full interview, look here.
It is this idea of responsiveness to children, and curiosity about them, that makes me feel that it is a form of love…and I wonder:
Can we love someone if we aren’t truly curious about them?
How much do we really desire to know more about the children we are close to?
How often do we actually marvel together with the children in our lives?
As adults we often operate out of a belief that we know more than children rather than, perhaps more accurately, know differently than children. It is what makes it difficult to hold space for them, or slow down when they need more time to process something. Our “knowing” overrides theirs, and it turns into a battle of wills- which we are almost always certain to lose, not to mention be completely exhausted by. As Ann says, it isn’t “sustaining work.”
So what is the “food” we can thrive on when working with young children? What nourishes us as teachers, and in return nourishes the children we care for? It might sound overly sentimental but, it’s LOVE. We can’t show up and be present with children if we don’t love them unconditionally, and desire to know them deeper. We can’t be responsive to their needs if our love doesn’t fuel our actions. We can’t uphold the sheer energy it takes to be with young children all day without loving them. We cannot hear what they say if we do not listen from a place of love. It is love that enables children to feel validated and safe. It is love that illuminates our work with them.